Iraq may be the point of President George W. Bush’s “axis
of evil” that is receiving his adminstration’s closest
attention, but the greatest threat lies on the Korean peninsula,
according to former Emory President James Laney, who spoke at the
latest Emory College Public Issues Forum, Feb. 13 in White Hall.
Laney, who served as U.S. ambassador to South Korea from 1993–97,
called the current situation in North Korea “very serious”
and warned that war between North Korea and the United States would
produce “catastrophic” casualties. Speaking in careful,
measured tones before a full lecture hall, the former ambassador
gave a quick primer on recent U.S.-North Korean relations and outlined
his thoughts on how to resolve the tense diplomatic standoff between
the two countries.
Driving the crisis is North Korea’s recent abandonment of
a 1994 agreement (brokered by Jimmy Carter) in which it pledged
not to develop nuclear weapons in exchange for shipments of fuel
and development of two light-water nuclear reactors (to generate
electricity) from the United States. Since the last year in office
of former President Bill Clinton (who named Laney ambassador to
Seoul in 1993), relations between the two countries have steadily
declined. With the recent reactivation of its Yongbyon nuclear facility,
North Korea soon could produce enough weapons-grade plutonium for
five or six nuclear bombs, Laney said.
“Unlike Iraq, this is not hypothetical,” he said. “This
And for anyone who thinks North Korea would back down from an armed
conflict with America, Laney had sobering words; during the previous
crisis in 1994, he said the two countries came within a hair’s
breadth of war, with Clinton on the cusp evacuating U.S. citizens
from neighboring South Korea.
“North Korea is a very dangerous entity when it is cornered,”
Laney said. “North Korea is not Iraq; this [war] would not
be a cakewalk.”
Though he was careful not to directly criticize the current Bush
administration, Laney implied the situation no doubt was exacerbated
by a “dismissive” and “contemptuous” attitude
from Washington following the 2000 elections. Bush’s labeling
of North Korea in his 2002 State of the Union Address as part of
an “axis of evil” (along with Iraq and Iran) likely
did not help improve relations, Laney said.
Then, in October of last year, when North Korea admitted to having
reopened its nuclear program, Bush declared the 1994 agreement void
and stopped fuel shipments. North Korea responded by kicking out
international inspectors and proceeding full scale with the Yongbyon
“To their credit, the Bush administration has acted with a
great deal of restraint,” Laney said, but added that the two
countries now are at an impasse: North Korea has said it will not
halt its nuclear program without a formal pledge of nonaggression
from the United States, and Washington has said it will not negotiate
until North Korea stops its weapons program.
“So how do we get out of this?” Laney said. “How
do you solve a problem when all you have are lousy options?”
North Korea must be given a “face-saving” way to back
down, he said, proposing that the United States convene a summit
with Russia, China and Japan in which all four nations pledge to
maintain stability on the Korean peninsula if North Korea will again
abide by the 1994 agreement.
The consequences of war would be the most dire since World War II,
Laney said. Though North Korea could not possibly hope to defeat
the United States, it could inflict horrific damage on its neighbor
to the south; Seoul, a city four times larger than Atlanta, sits
just 30 miles from the demilitarized zone (DMZ) between North and
Even if war is avoided, allowing North Korea to proceed with its
nuclear program also could be catastrophic. Aside from the possibility
of President Kim Jong Il selling nuclear weapons to the highest
bidder, a nuclear-capable North Korea would prompt Japan and likely
South Korea to feel the need for such an arsenal, and then “all
of East Asia could turn into an arms race of nuclear proliferation.”
In such a reality, he said, even a minor incident could become a
flashpoint for war.
“When I was ambassador, our greatest problem was trigger-happy
soldiers along the DMZ,” Laney said.
The Public Issues Forum is a project of the Joint Activities Committee,
a partnership between Emory College and Campus Life that looks for
ways to bring together students and faculty outside the classroom.